Event Management Tip; When a Reception Is Not a Reception

You’re probably very familiar with the saying “we learn from our mistakes”. There probably isn’t an industry around that hasn’t developed, and refined, policies based on mishaps. I’m very pleased to tell you the same is true in event management. And I guess that’s a good thing. It’s how we react from our mistakes that help define (or rather improve) policies moving forward.

This event management tip that I’m about to offer stems from a function that I helped organize early on in my event planning career while I was working for a destination management company (DMC). I’m going to relay how an event unfolded, badly, in hopes that any event planners out there can avoid the same mistake.

Most of Us Are Trained That the Event Organizer Is Always Right

I was trained, and for good reason, to always consider the customer to be right. You see, I am of the ilk that believes good customer service is ultimately what sets good companies apart from bad companies. For the purposes of this story I have altered the venue and names to protect the guilty. Here’s how the whole event began and how it, horrifically, unfolded. I was approached by my potential customer, a meeting planner, about hosting a reception in a local art gallery in New York City (again, don’t go searching for possible venues or potential clients as I have altered the location and venue to protect the guilty). My client’s group was part of a larger association that was having a citywide conference at the time. My client wanted to bring a select group of about 100 guests to the art gallery and have a “heavy hors d’oeuvres” reception. The event was going to occur from 5 PM until 7 PM (this should have been my first clue regarding the heavy hors d’oeuvres requirement). As part of the setup, my client insisted on banquet rounds instead of cruiser tables (these are the high-top tables that you can stand at to put your drinks and light hors d’oeuvres on), and dinner plates instead of, the more appropriate, salad plates. The guest could also tour the gallery during the “reception”. Plus there was going to be entertainment playing throughout.

An Event Management Lesson

So the big day arrives and our group begins to arrive at the art gallery. As the event began to unfold, it became very clear that this group considered this function to be anything but a reception. They were hungry. Within the first half-hour we began to realize we did not have enough food. And, because the event was being held at an art gallery, there wasn’t a lot of backup food that we could prepare.

My client approached us and she was not happy. She freaked on us. Her guests were starting to form a lineup at the food stations where there was simply no food available. How could you let this happen to me? You assured me that your caterer was one of the best in the city! These are a sampling of the comments that she was making (and they’re cleaned up).

Luckily we had an excellent operations person that was able to contact a local restaurant not far from the gallery and have some additional food prepared and delivered. I say this because our caterer had no other suggestions for us. So what we were able to pull off was only because of our own operations person.

The next day, there was a lot of rebating as my client would not accept any responsibility for what had occurred.

And What Is the Event Management Tip in All of This?

Well, in hindsight, there’s a lot that I would have done differently today. The main message is that my client was trying to put together a nice function but not spend a ton of money on food, hence calling it a reception. She had wanted a reception with 7 to 10 pieces of hors d”oeuvres per person. In the industry we call that a heavy hors d’oeuvres function. But again a heavy hors d”oeuvres function is not a dinner.

And here are the tips:

If a meeting planner, or client, is intending to host a reception then there should not be banquet style seating. If there are enough seats in the venue to seat everybody that is attending, typically that is not a reception setup. In a reception set up, most times, there would be scattered seating and or cruiser tables. The take away from this point is that I should have stressed to my client that by providing seating for everybody she would be giving the impression of a sit-down dinner. And if that was the case then we were not planning for enough food.

The dinner plates. Flag number two. Most receptions provide smaller, or salad, plates. Obviously, when you supply the larger plates, people will take more food. And if you”re only planning 7 to 10 pieces per person, a salad plate would be suitable for that function.

The caterer. We found out after the function that one of the chefs had approached our caterer and said that they were concerned about the amount of consumption that was occurring. This comment, apparently, was made after the first 10 or so people approached the food stations for food. Certainly that would have given us enough time to react had the caterer approached us with this overview. I’d also like to note that the caterer did compensate us so that we were able to pass on the rebate to our client, the meeting planner.

Final Thoughts

So what’s the moral of the story here? Well, as I said in the title, you really have to know when a reception is not a reception. From my part, I should’ve raised more flags with my client regarding the time of the function and her setup request. I did relay my concerns to her regarding the plate size and the amount of seating, but she was insistent on the set up. Of course, during the event itself, she had one of those brain freeze moments where she did not remember my advice regarding the setup. My lesson is I should’ve expressed this in writing.

Of course thanks to our operations person the attendees had a good time and, really, that’s what matters most. But the take away from this is that, while yes the customer is always right, we do have to provide guidance and at times make sure that we are covered if our meeting planners are insisting on their way versus our recommendation.

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